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Jaguar predation of marine turtles: multilateral threats to

flagship species and the necessity for holistic conservation

*Diogo Verissimo1, David Aneurin Jones1 and Rebeca Chaverri1


1
Global Vision International, Apartado Postal 78-7209, Cariari de Pococí, Limón. 70205 Costa
Rica. E-mail: costarica@gvi.co.uk

Presented to the 29th Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology & Conservation, International
Sea Turtle Symposium, Australia, 2009.

Few species are known to predate adult marine turtles and none are known to impact
populations in any large number. As such, traditionally, predation of marine turtles has not
been regarded as a major threat. However, in Tortuguero National Park (TNP), Costa Rica,
jaguars are predating nesting female turtles in increasing numbers; from four documented
cases in 1997, to a minimum of 146 individuals per annum. If the current trend continues,
jaguars will become one of the largest local threats to these marine turtles, leading to conflict
in the management of two of the leading conservation flagships in the Americas.

Jaguar predation of marine turtles has been consistently monitored on Tortuguero Beach from
July 2005 and is ongoing. Data collected include biometrics of predated turtles, photographs
of the carcasses and signs of jaguar predation. Location data, including GPS position, are
recorded, all of which eliminate the possibility of double-counting. Each survey also
documents the number of turtle-tracks and the presence or absence of jaguar tracks per half
mile. During this study, numbers of predated turtles have risen from minimums of 74 to 146
per year.

The complex drivers of this interaction have yet to be fully understood and we discuss the
likelihood of several theories and their possible implications for managing threatened species
that include a terrestrial predator and a marine prey. Several ideas have been proposed to
explain this rapid predation increase, including the absence of potential prey species,
increased hunting pressure, the increase in jaguar numbers locally, and the decrease in
available habitat.

A high variety of jaguar potential prey species have been documented in several areas of the
National Park during the time of increased predation. Whilst we await a current jaguar
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population estimate, this impact, in conjunction with high levels of deforestation over the same
period have lead to the relative isolation of TNP, likely limiting the ability of the local population
to thrive. As deforestation of the terrestrial boundaries around TNP continues, suitable forest
habitat becomes marginalised towards the coast.

However, not only does habitat loss appear to fit with current spatial and temporal activities of
the local jaguar population, many of the likely secondary factors arguably have the same root
cause. Whilst this remains to be seen, factors negatively affecting jaguars, a highly sensitive
species affected by a range of invasive human activities, are indirectly affecting turtles,
highlighting the importance of conserving holistically to the benefit of these keystone species.

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